How to Plant a Vineyard

“The journey of thousand miles begins with a single step,” said the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu. “The planting of a vineyard begins with a single vine.” That second one originates with me. I had the privilege of participating in the planting of a new vineyard recently and was enraptured by its simplicity and grandiosity.

Planting grapes

Placing a single grapevine in the ground is easy, I’ve done it in my own garden. But when planted enmasse, in long rows, the individual plants attain an enviable status. Though I personally planted a few dozen vines as my contribution to the vineyard, that effort seemed dwarfed by the hundreds of vines already in the ground and the hundreds more to follow. It’s a massive undertaking to establish a vineyard, but each of the components of that effort can be done by any dedicated gardener.

A new vineyard

Grapevines are purchased from commercial growers around the world. If you’re growing a vineyard, you can choose from any of the well-known wine varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling. Not every grape will grow in every region, however. Some types like Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec are best suited for long, hot summers, while others like Riesling and Pinot Noir prefer cooler conditions.

Because of a simple pest that attacks grape roots, all of Europe’s grapes were devastated in the 19th century. The root louse Phylloxera migrated to Europe from the Americas and was to blame. Luckily for the world’s wine producers, American grapes were resistant to the insect. Today, virtually all of the world’s wine grapes are grown from American rootstock with a European grape variety grafted to it.

The plants arrive as dormant, rooted cuttings. They’re stacked horizontally in cardboard boxes and shipped by the major delivery companies. Like most bareroot plants, the grape roots should be soaked in water for hours before planting. This helps reverse any desiccation from the shipping process and supplies the roots with extra moisture so they can get a good start when planted. The plants should remain in the water until ready to be put in the ground.

The vineyard owner opening the box of vines

When planting a large number of plants, of any type, it works best to have all of the holes dug ahead of time. In the case of this vineyard, the owner used a hydraulic auger to bore hundreds of holes between two and three feet deep, spaced about six feet apart. With the holes ready, the vines could be planted easily and quickly.

Placing a vine in the hole

There is no mechanical planting when it comes to grapes. Each vine is planted one at a time, by hand. The dormant vine is placed in the hole, the roots are gently fanned out, and soil is replaced to fill in the space. As with all bareroot plants, it’s important to eliminate air pockets that may form around the roots so gentle tamping of the soil while filling the hole helps. Packing down the soil isn’t recommended because compaction is a root’s worst enemy, just firm the soil around the roots. Pouring water into the hole at stages while adding soil also helps eliminate air pockets.

Filling in the hole by hand

Whenever you plant in a large hole you can expect the soil to settle over time. Typical yard soil is compacted and you’ve fluffed it up by digging it out. You can use this to your benefit if you like a natural bowl forming around the plant to collect water. You should anticipate it and place the plant high enough so that the settling doesn’t adversely affect it. The grape vines were placed with the grafting point about five inches above the soil level.

One of many young vines

With the plant in the ground, extra soil is spread around it and it’s watered well. Grapes are famous for the depth that their roots can grow, but for young plants it’s important that they are regularly watered until strong, with their own established root systems. As always, watering well does not mean saturating the soil. Roots can drown if they are immersed in water. A moist soil is a good soil.

Watering the planted vine

In just a few weeks the vines should bud and begin producing long, green shoots of leaves. It will be about three years before fruit production begins. The plant needs that time to grow a strong root system with enough energy to support grapes. My Concord grapes began producing abundant fruit in the fourth year. It takes patience waiting for the clusters of grapes, but it’s well worth the effort.

Grapes can be grown almost everywhere. It’s is important to research which types will do best in your region. Colorado vineyards grow a number of different varietals and Colorado State University offers guidance for growers, including a free PDF download of “Colorado Grape Grower’s Guide.”

Grapes are a great addition to any garden. You don’t need to plant hundreds of vines and establish your own vineyard to enjoy fresh fruit. A single vine or two is enough for a family and they don’t need to be wine grapes. My two Concord vines allowed me to make dozens of jars of delicious Concord grape jelly every year.

My Concord grapes

I’ve now had the pleasure of growing my own grapes and planting vines in a vineyard. Both are experiences I highly recommend.

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